Small business owners have lots of choices now when it comes to selecting an email services provider. MailChimp, ConvertKit, Flodesk, MailerLite, Klaviyo, ActiveCampaign, and many other services tout their specific features, integrations, and pricing in an effort to win over this sector of the market.
There’s one player in the newsletter landscape, though, generating a kind of buzz that’s different than the rest. It’s called Substack and since it launched in 2017 it’s attracted an impressive roster of big-name writers. They’ve been drawn to Substack because it offers something no other player has: the ability to easily monetize a newsletter audience. Could Substack also a good home for craft business owners, too? Let’s take a look.
How is Substack different?
Substack describes itself as “a place for independent writing where readers can subscribe directly to the writers they enjoy.” Substack’s co-founder, Chris Best, envisions subscription-based media, such as paid newsletters, as disrupting newspapers, the way ride hailing has disrupted the taxi industry.
When you start a newsletter on Substack you own your list (you can import an existing list from another email service provider if you’d like). You get to decide which parts of your newsletter will be free and which parts will go behind a paywall. Some publishers begin with an entirely free newsletter, and later add a paid version. You can also import your newsletter archives from another platform including MailChimp, WordPress, or any site with an RSS feed.
Creating a Substack newsletter is entirely free, no matter how many subscribers you have. This is another feature that sets Substack apart from almost every other email service provider on the market most of whom charge either a monthly fee or according to list size. For payments from your subscribers, Substack integrates with Stripe. Substack takes a 10% cut of your subscriber payments and Stripe takes about 3% + .30 per transaction.
Another unique feature of Substack is that the content you write in your Substack newsletter is automatically formatted for the web. If you choose, it can be posted online where readers can comment on it, building community through discussion.
Many of these features drew in craft business owner Kim Werker. Recently she was looking for a new home for her newsletter.
“What drew me to Substack is that it’s simple,” she says. “It’s like a blog, pretty much, except built for email.”
She’s been using Substack for a few weeks now and is thrilled with the platform’s ease of use and zero price tag.
Can you really make money selling a newsletter, though? Substack says yes, and the number of paying subscribers you need isn’t as large as you might think. Use this tool to estimate what you could earn. It’s enticing! Of course, it’s important to consider what you can offer to paid subscribers that’s different from what you offer to free subscribers. Substack has a helpful guide to figuring that out. Some publishers offer extra issues, a member community, or bonus material.
Substack also allows creators to distribute paid and free podcast episodes. You can import existing audio and host it on Substack or record directly through the Substack audio editor. For your paid subscribers, you can email them a link to a private podcast feed that they can then add to their favorite podcast listening app (like Apple Podcasts). This app will include both your free and paid episodes.
Werker had used Patreon in the past to support her business. Now, for her paid Substack subscribers, she’s planning to offer some extras “in the form of more opportunities for conversation and connection” and she’s excited to try out the podcasting feature.
The minimum you can charge your subscribers for the paid version of your Substack newsletter is $5/month (or $30/year), but Substack advises setting your price point at 20% higher than you think you should. Online community builder Danielle Maveal has a Substack, Community Feelings, that is entirely free right now. “I would love to monetize one day, maybe once I hit 10k subscribers,” she says. She has 400 signed on right now.
Offering something different
Book agent Kate McKean started her Substack newsletter, Agents and Books, two years ago. She values the simplicity of collecting payments from subscribers and the fact that she owns her subscriber list. With her Substack newsletter, she aims to demystify publishing, agents, and writing by offering free nuts-and-bolts content on Tuesdays, and for paid subscribers, more analysis, and reader-submitted Q&As on Thursdays.
“There is not a lot of accessible information out there about publishing and agents, and that is what I wanted to fix,” she says. She says her newsletter revenue makes up just over 10% of her gross income right now.
Still, Substack isn’t the right platform for everyone. Lisa Chamoff, founder of the online marketplace and popular event Indie Untangled, tried Substack for a few months earlier this year only to decide it wasn’t right for her. “I like that Substack is helping change the mentality of paying for content, and I have a couple of paid subscriptions myself, but I think it’s more geared towards writers who don’t want to set up their own websites or already have an audience for their writing because they’ve worked at high-profile publications,” she says. “I realized I just don’t have the time and motivation to consistently create content that’s worth people paying for, especially when I already earn much more from my own website and need to drive traffic there in order to make my investment pay off.”
One limitation of Substack, in comparison to the other email service providers, is design and layout. Although just a few weeks ago Substack released a suite of new layouts, the overall design, and visual image functionality is quite limited. After all, Substack’s focus is on writers. “This isn’t Squarespace with a plethora of themes to choose from,” says McKean. Still, comic artist Edith Zimmerman has managed to create a highly successful visual Substack so the capability is there.
Another limitation is the inability to clean your list, or easily cull and delete inactive subscribers. Since Substack is free, this may not be a problem, but for creators who care about open and click rates, this could be considered a disadvantage.
The Substack leaderboard is an interesting place to discover newsletters that are gaining in popularity. It’s split into categories so you can check out newsletters on culture, health, food & drink, (and although craft doesn’t have its own category, maybe it could in the future) on the platform and get ideas for what you might create.
Creating a Substack newsletter isn’t likely to create a full-time income for most creators. It could, however, become a new revenue stream for businesses that rely on many, which most craft businesses do.
Werker says if she were looking to do a product promotion or “anything relying on great design or imagery” then Substack wouldn’t be the platform she’d choose, but as a writer, she’s giddy about how straightforward it is. “Substack feels like it was designed just for me,” she says. “As soon as I can save all my years of archives from ConvertKit (no small feat), Substack will save me nearly $80 a month, plus it’ll provide a way for me to support my creative side projects. I keep waiting to discover an ugly downside to it, but for now, it just seems perfect.”
Abby co-founded Craft Industry Alliance and now serves as its president. She’s a sewing pattern designer, teacher, and journalist. She’s dedicated to creating an outstanding trade association for the crafts industry. Abby lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts.